To service a never-ending stream of requests, Sahar Alsaad is running Iraqi cooking classes from a suburban Christian church.
In 2018, Sahar Alsaad went into the Blackwood Hills Baptist Church to buy a bottle of water. Although the church café was closed and Sahar didn’t get the bottle of water, she did leave with an opportunity to forge new connections and friendships.
“The man who was at the front of the church said, ‘Sorry, we are closed, but do you want to see the church?’”, explains Sahar from inside the church’s industrial kitchen, which, on the day we visit, buzzes with six volunteers chopping, washing and slicing ingredients for lunch.
“I said, ‘Ok’, and he took me around the church, and then he told me, ‘Do you want to volunteer?’ He showed me the kitchen here, the café. I thought, ‘Why not?’”
Sahar, a former food technology engineer, moved from Baghdad to Blackwood in 2017. She has volunteered at Blackwood Hills Baptist Church for the last four years. It’s her job to prepare food for the church’s not-for-profit eatery, Café 72, on Wednesday and Friday.
The café is solely volunteer-run and sells heavily discounted food for the local community.
Recently, though, Sahar has decided to diversify her offerings. Her loyal customers have started asking to learn how she makes her delectable Iraqi treats. “They’re asking for Sahar’s food,” she says, her pink eyeshadow glimmering as she grins. “And they’re asking, ‘How are you doing this?’”
To sate this growing appetite for Iraqi cooking knowledge, Sahar began offering cooking classes under the moniker Sahar’s Cooking School.
Her first class was seven months ago, and it was a hit – for community connection as much as for food. “It should be from 12 to 2pm, but we made it from 12 to 3:30pm because we were chatting,” Sahar laughs.
She’s hosted three classes since, with five to seven participants in each session. The cohort is mostly “white Australians”, Sahar says, and she believes they’re drawn to the lessons to learn more about her culture.
This desire for cultural exchange cuts both ways. Sahar, who is Muslim, enjoys volunteering at the Blackwood Hills Baptist Church because she doesn’t want to live in a bubble. “I don’t want to be sitting at home, unsure about what Australia is loving, what they hate, what do they do?” she says. “I’m very glad to communicate with them, know their culture and let them know my culture.”
Before Sahar started volunteering at the church, she spent most of her time at home, making it “pleasing” and “nice” for her family. She didn’t mind it, she says, but she found it slightly lonely.
“I’m not talking to anyone,” Sahar says.
“My family are going to their work. I am sitting at home. I have nothing to do. I didn’t have a job.
“When I joined here, it was my pleasure.”
The Sahar’s Cooking School curriculum is rooted in Iraqi food, with each lesson comprised of two to three dishes. The cuisine is rooted in spices: salt, pepper, sumac, anise, cardamon and black lemon. But the trick, Sahar says, is ensuring these seasonings are freshly ground before cooking so they retain their fragrant flavour.
On the day she is interviewed, Sahar is making uruk and fattoush salad; offering a taste of what people should expect at her School. This will feed up to 12 people for lunch or dinner. Uruk is baked lamb mince mixed with bulgur wheat and onions, topped with tomatoes and egg. This is the show-stopper.
Fattoush is a fresh combination of cherry tomatoes, lettuce, capsicum and black pepper. It’s slathered in pomegranate molasses and lemon juice.
Other things to expect at a traditional Iraqi dinner include rice (“biryani rice, broad bean rice, carrot rice or black rice”) and meat – poultry or fish, Sahar says. The latter is reserved for special guests.
“It’s called masgouf,” Sahar says. “You make the fire in here and the fish should be hanged on a tray or twine. The heat won’t come directly. It will take one or two hours. Should be a big fish. This one is very nice tasty fish in Iraqi food.”
As Sahar places the finishing touches on these dishes, we ask if she has any favourite students from her classes. The fact that they have shown an interest in what she makes and are paying for it is enough to make her think everyone is special, she says.
“I’m communicating. Laughing. Talking. Chatting,” she says.
But this enthusiasm for food and exchange isn’t limited to the kitchen. Belonging can be found in any environment, Sahar says.
“It is very good to have your mosque, your church, your whatever, in your heart,” she says.
Words & Image: Angela Skujins